Tag Archives: burmese wine

Road-testing Burmese wineries

Published on DVB on 14 March 2014

View from the Sunset Garden Restaurant - Myanmar 1st Vineyard, Aythaya wine
View from the Sunset Garden Restaurant – Myanmar 1st Vineyard, Aythaya wine

Burma is blessed with a gilded, gravity-defying rock, thousand year old temples and a natural lake that’s bigger than San Marino, yet one of the country’s more understated experiences is no less memorable: drinking local wines where the grapes are grown. Burma has two wineries, both located in mountainous Shan State, where the elevation is high enough to produce very decent white wines and velvety reds.

“We’ve had only positive feedback [about the winery],” said Bert Mosbach, the managing director of Myanmar’s first wine producer, Myanmar Vineyard Estate Co. Ltd. Its Aythaya label is named after the village the winery is located in, which lies at an altitude of 1,200 metres.

However Mr Mosbach said he plans to have a sound barrier installed at the winery to wipe out every last trace of noise from cars en route to or from nearby Taunggyi, the state’s bustling capital.

“Paradise shouldn’t have any noise,” said Mosbach, who boasts that his winery, which is run by fellow German compatriot, winemaker Hans Leiendecker, “is the nicest place in southern Shan State.”

Indeed, by the time the sampling of four wines was complete (K2,000) and as the sun was casting its final glow over the rolling hills, it was easy to imagine that life doesn’t get any better. By the time the first bottle of sauvignon blanc was emptied and the shiraz delivered to the table by our friendly Chin waiter, it was more than mere imagining. The only distraction to conversation became conversation itself: a plump, bossy white duck chased a smaller version of itself across the pond in front of the restaurant’s balcony with as much huff and puff as Daffy Duck.

Gradual intoxication, the murmurings of French tourists nearby and a dozen or so Burmese taking selfies on the pavilion created a pleasant sense of confusion. My husband ordered spicy chicken wings and I had an avocado and a seafood salad – one local, one Western style.

Red Mountain grapes
Red Mountain grapes

According to Mosbach, the cosmopolitan nature of the guests at the winery – the majority of whom are now locals – is something he’s always tried to cultivate.

“It used to be only the Europeans, Americans and Canadians who came to the winery, but lately a lot more Asian tourists have been coming. While I’d say that wine appreciation is definitely growing in Myanmar [Burma], there wasn’t a tipping point as such… It kept Hans and I wondering when that moment came, when local consumers took over as the majority.”

After years of trials and tribulations – such as having his basmati rice farm in Loikaw, Karenni [Kayah] State, confiscated by the former military government, then having to abandon his first winery (also in Loikaw) due to armed conflict between government troops and ethnic rebels, Mosbach is now literally reaping the fruits of his labour.

He told DVB that Aythaya’s sales are at an all time high. Whilst it’s no surprise that local wine sales benefitted from the government’s sudden crackdown on imported alcohol and tobacco in the lead-up to Christmas last year, Mosbach said that many consumers were converted.

Beautiful views at Red Mountain winery
Beautiful views at Red Mountain winery

“It was a moment for many wine drinkers who had never touched Myanmar wine to try it. And they’ve stayed with us since, which is wonderful,” he said.

Mosbach said that sales in January broke December’s record, and that February was even stronger. Although he declined to provide sales figures, he said sales volumes are “already double what they were in 2013.”

In fact, it’s now local wines that are out of stock.

“We sold out of our white wines last Friday. It’s still in the shops, but we can’t fill our new orders. It’s the first time we’ve had this problem. We can’t sell more until the wine is ready – which is about three weeks from now.”

Mosbach is considered the pioneer of wine-making in Burma, having set up Myanmar 1st Vineyard in 1999 – however he does have one award winning competitor: Red Mountain. Its winery has a more rustic feel and lies in a valley close to Nyaung Shwe, with magnificent views of Inle Lake. Its altitude is slightly lower, at 950 meters above sea level. Unfortunately however, the white wine was served in a bucket with an awkward slab of ice and wasn’t properly chilled, while the food and service was somewhat mediocre.

“Competition stimulates business and there’s room for more of it,” Mosbach said with a smile. He added that Aythaya is outperforming Red Mountain with “significantly more sales.”

Mosbach is also adamant that Burma’s climate is “perfect” for making quality white wines, which gives it an edge over regional rivals. In Thailand, for example, most vineyards have been set up in low altitude, tropical climates, of between 0-200 meters above sea level. According to Red Mountain’s winemaker Francois Raynal, “Thailand’s sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are not growing well.”

“It’s no accident that we’ve sold out of white wine,” Mosbach said.

“There was a 300 person function held recently for the German President’s visit, and people there told us that Aythaya is the best white wine in Asia. This confirmed my own opinion.”

Me among the grapes at Red Mountain.
Me among the grapes at Red Mountain.

When DVB told Mosbach it had heard through the grapevine that an Asian Wine Producer’s Association is in the process of being set up, and that it already has 10 founding members from the wine producing countries of Japan, Thailand, China, India and Indonesia, he sat bolt upright in his chair.

“Tell [the association] that we want to join,” he said.

Myanmar’s New World wine

Published in The Myanmar Times on 8 July 2013

Myanmar produces award-winning wine but its reputation as a winemaking country is decidedly low-key.

A worker at Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain
A worker at Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain

Most diners react suspiciously when a bottle of Myanmar wine is presented to them in a restaurant, according to local winemaker Francois Raynal. Although pleasant surprise generally follows the first sip, few inside Myanmar are aware of its budding wine industry and it’s practically an unknown entity internationally. This is in spite of the fact that two locally produced wines, Aythaya and Red Mountain, have been praised by critics and are said to be of the same calibre as Old World wines – that is, wines produced in the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe. Red Mountain’s sauvignon blanc 2010 scored an impressive 83 out of 100 from the highly respected wine critic Jeannie Cho Lee, while the 2010 chardonnay received a bronze medal in the World’s Best Chardonnay Competition 2013. Mr Raynal, who is Red Mountain’s vineyard manager and winemaker, is eagerly awaiting the results for the World’s Best Muscat competition.

The country’s first vineyard was established in 1998 under the somewhat unimaginative name Myanmar 1st Vineyard Estate. Its Aythaya wines appeared in 2004, following lengthy trials on 10,000 vines imported from France. Today it produces eight different wines and visitors can stay at the vineyard in the decidedly Italian-sounding Monte Divino Lodge, which is 25 kilometres north of Inle Lake, and at an altitude of 1200 metres. Aythaya was founded by a German winemaker called Bert Mosbach, who is considered the pioneer of winemaking in Myanmar.

Red Mountain, also located near Inle Lake in Shan State, followed suit in 2010. It currently markets 11 different wines.

Wine critic Denis Gastin, who is an expert in Asian wines, told The Myanmar Times via email, “I do believe that these two wineries have met international benchmark standards and their wines would be acceptable in export markets. But still, there is always a big marketing challenge to get this message into the minds of consumers in established wine markets who would more naturally think of the traditional Old World countries or the successful New World countries as a logical source of quality wines.”

The good news for Myanmar’s wine industry however, is that in Mr Gastin’s experience, “many wine drinkers are impressed as much by the story behind the wine as what they actually enjoy in the bottle. Getting the message out to what I call the ‘wine adventurers’ would be the way to start.”

Harvest time at Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain
Harvest time at Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain

He said that high quality wines from Thailand and India have succeeded in cementing their reputation by following this formula.

But until significant inroads are made, wineries in Myanmar will continue to be almost wholly reliant on local consumers.

Mr Raynal has found that tourists are just as keen to sample local wines as they are to try local foods.

“They can find French or Chilean wines at home but they can only find our wines here,” he said.

Sadly, although Red Mountain has recently seen “an incredible increase of the demand for our wines” due to the easing of sanctions and the development of tourism, it seems that locals are less excited about the prospect of home-grown wine.

Nick Hearn, country manager of the Warehouse wine shop in Yangon’s Botahtaung township, said, “If you’re a tourist, it’s kind of cool to drink local wine – but if you’re a local, this goes for drinking imported wine.”

The Warehouse is a French company based in Vietnam, where it has five outlets. Its Yangon store sells wine from nine different countries, none of which include Myanmar.

Mr Hearn said that although the Warehouse is a specialist in foreign products, the decision not to sell local wine could potentially change in the future, “We’re new to Myanmar, so we’re testing what works for our customers.”

He said customers rarely ask for Myanmar wine.

Mr Hearn regards Red Mountain wines as superior to those grown in the Dalat region of Vietnam, but added that Vietnam enjoys a more developed wine market. There is an important difference in the way Vietnam markets its wine to consumers: “Vietnamese wine is always the cheapest wine on the menu, but that’s not the case here – take the Governor’s Residence and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, for example. Pricing is something that local wine struggles with here – people are hesitant to spend more on it because it is considered inferior.”

Local consumers in Myanmar tend to be nervous about the cost of wine, Mr Hearn said, so “they put their money on a French bottle.”

He hopes this will change as people become better acquainted with New World wines, such as Chilean or Australian.

Workers picking the grapes of Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain
Workers picking the grapes of Red Mountain Estate. Photo supplied by Red Mountain

The manager of Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon’s Botataung township, David Aung Win, told The Myanmar Times that local wines have been on the menu for several years, but that wine itself remains unpopular among locals.

“Those in the hospitality industry know of it, but most local people don’t know how to drink wine – they drink it like a whisky.”

Likewise, The Strand’s executive chef, Christopher Parsons, said that Red Mountain and Aythaya are “kind of popular among people passing through Myanmar, but we don’t sell a lot of it.”

Although Red Mountain and Aythaya are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest in terms of market share, several smaller wineries are emerging. Pyin Oo Lwin boasts a handful, as its climate is similarly cool and its altitude high.

At a locally owned winery in Pyin Oo Lwin called Ngwe Nan Taw (Silver Palace Wine), winemaker Sai Aung Kham Oo is taking a rather experimental route by producing damson wine. Damson is a stone fruit which resembles a plum and the resulting wine has a higher level of acidity than grape wines.

Sai Aung Kham Oo spent two years at Aythaya winery learning production processes and was mentored by winemaker Hans Leiendecker of Aythaya. Winemaking equipment was imported from Germany in 2008. The fruit is collected from surrounding villages, as well as from northern and southern Shan state, and even China.

Mr Gastin hasn’t sampled a damson wine, but he said that fruit-based wines (such as strawberries and blueberries) are a long established tradition in Asian countries, although not a big category internationally.

“Mostly they don’t match Western palate preferences, and sometimes they rely on added sugar to balance out the natural acidity to be palatable, and even added colouring to be more attractive,” Mr Gastin said.

Sai Aung Kham Oo’s sister, Nan Aye Aye Mon, who is also a director of the family-owned business, confirmed that sugar is added to the blend, however according to a British wine reviewer Lotti, it may not be enough to dispel the acidity. After sampling Ngwe Nan Taw’s 2010 dry red wine, she said, “It’s very acidic: like sour Granny Smith apples.”

Lotti, who spent a year studying winemaking in Australia, wasn’t confident that the damson wine would succeed if exported.

Although the wine is stored in oak barrels which are sealed off by thick cork double doors, she said, “It tastes like it’s from a metal barrel. There’s no oaky depth at all.”

She suggested that damson wine would make a good alternative to a white wine at lunch with a noodle or tea leaf salad. But although “it definitely has a novelty factor, whether it would sell overseas is questionable,” she concluded.

Pan Min Thakhin Manufacturing Co Ltd’s wine is available in Citymart and Sein Gay Har supermarkets, as is Red Mountain and Aythaya wine. Nan Aye Aye Mon said, “We have plans to export but we have no experience – that’s the problem. I hope we will do so later.”

Mr Mosbach said that Aythaya wine has been exported to China’s Yunnan province since 2008, because it has the most liberal import regulations policies of any neighbouring country. Incidentally, Thailand is the worst, with taxes and duties accounting for 450 percent.

However until operations expand, Aythaya’s exports will be confined to China alone. One impediment to expansion is that, as Mr Mosbach explained, “As a foreign company we can only lease [land] from the government. … That is the major reason why there are so few foreign investors in this country. Fortunately our landlord is the Ministry of Agriculture through its services department, MAS … and [it is] a very effective and even cordial cooperation.”

Secondly, although the Myanmar Investment Council (MIC) has urged Aythaya to bump up its export volume, wine is taxed at the same rate as spirits despite the fact it has a lower alcohol content.

“Wine, with its 12-13pc alcohol content, is taxed at the same rate of 50pc as spirits, which have a 42-45pc alcohol content. That’s not fair and we are suffering,” Mr Mosbach said.

Red Mountain has a client in Japan but export volumes remain low.

“We try to focus on the local market for two main reasons: firstly, the international market is very competitive. There are very cheap wines from France, Chile and Australia with a good quality-price ratio. With our high production costs we aren’t competitive,” Mr Raynal said.

The other reason, he said, is that Myanmar wines are yet to build a reputation internationally. People simply don’t associate the golden land with wine production.

With so many hurdles in local winemakers’ paths and an undeservedly low-key reputation, why not support the local wine industry by drinking a glass or two today?